History Of The Gas Mask: How Need Brought Us The Weirdest-Looking Common Tool

By | March 31, 2020

The gas mask has come to be an international symbol of wartime atrocities, but it began as a tool for people tasked with unenviable and dangerous jobs. Long before chlorine gas filled the trenches of World War I, a fairly simple invention helped people breathe through strenuous activities, whether it underwater diving or coal mining. Although the initial versions of gas masks were created to make life easier for regular people, they went on to (literally) change the face of the military.

test article image

Made For Firefighters

In the 19th century, more than one intrepid inventor recognized the potential market for devices to filter gas, dust, and muck from the air. Many jobs of the day, and today as well, were hazardous for the lungs of the people doing them: firefighters, divers, coal miners, etc. If they had masks, maybe they'd stop dropping dead so often, or at least be a little more comfortable.

John and Charles Deane patented a "standard dress" helmet for firemen to wear while entering smoke-filled rooms in 1823. It wasn't perfect—a giant helmet wasn’t really a feasible way for firemen to get around—but it was better than nothing. In 1827, they modified the helmet to help divers breathe underwater.

test article image

The Golden Age Of Gas Masks

Between 1849 and 1875, numerous inventors created variations on these breathing mechanisms. It all started when Lewis P. Haslett patented an "Inhaler or Lung Protector,” a creation that looked like the gas masks of the 20th century, although it only filtered dust from the air and not gaseous substances.

Over the next 20 years, there were major leaps in the world of early gas masks. John Stenhouse created a charcoal mask to block noxious fumes, John Tyndall introduced a respirator for fireman to filter smoke from the air, and Samuel Barton patented a device in 1874 to allow for "respiration in places where the atmosphere is charged with noxious gasses." It would be 20 more years before Barton patented the canister gas mask, a device with a metal canister on the front that filters noxious substances through layers of glycerin saturate cotton, granulated charcoal, and granulated lime.